Belmont Club

It's for keeps

Photo by: Alex Edelman

The trouble with relying on metaphors and historical parallels as a guide to analyzing a recent event lies in figuring out which one to use.  It is particularly hard to find the right fit in the case of Roy Moore’s loss to Doug Jones in Alabama. What lessons can be learned from it?

The most obvious one for conservatives is “don’t get cocky kid” after the big win last November.  Recalling that “we learn more from defeat than victory” conservatives could philosophically regard it as a prophylactic loss. Just as the liberals came back stronger after absorbing the bitter lessons of 2016 surely a chastened populist rebellion can learn from its mistakes in time for 2018 and 2020.

If they learn the right lessons.  But one can always learn the wrong ones and it’s not easy to see which is which.  The future is always new and unpredictable. Hillary, like the Bourbons, had no capacity to learn anything from the past and while the adage that “Generals always fight the previous war” seems useful in fact you can’t fight one that hasn’t happened yet.  The landscape in a year or three years time could be very different for both parties.

That uncertainty will impel others to say, let’s go back to the basics.  Up the training.  Success, it has been said, consists not in doing the extraordinary but in mastering the ordinary.  Some will conclude the lesson is to professionalize, to pay more attention to candidate screening and messaging and less to internecine politics.

Still others will be looking for wider lessons in the recent campaign, such as when for example, it became necessary to support Roy Moore principally because the other side was attacking him thus inadvertently giving the liberals the choice of ground.  Erich von Falkenhayn nearly bled Joffre’s army to death by using a similar psychological trick.  Falkenhayn’s idea was simple: pick a target French pride could not concede and then mow down all the troops Joffre sent in to retake it.

The choice of Verdun was a natural for Falkenhayn’s battle of attrition, for here were located probably the strongest fortified systems in the world. More than mere forts, the formidable defenses symbolized the French army, French honor, and independence—indeed, France itself. Falkenhayn was right in arguing that a German victory here would be intolerable to the French, a moral and psychological blow at the country’s heart. In defending it, Falkenhayn believed, they would sacrifice their army and then have to sue for peace.

The cheap trick cost the French republic a 150,000 lives.  At least one short-lived Senate seat is nowhere as expensive

But perhaps the most salient and disturbing lesson of the Alabama campaign is both sides are truly at political war. The sound of the closing polls was the sound of the door of history shutting behind us.

The election was not fought over the question not of what is best but “whose side are you on.” Both sides seem to be going for the kill in an absolutely committed way. A USA Today editorial calls Trump “a president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”  Andrew McCarthy says ““I think we’re ultimately going to find that the real collusion story of the 2016 election was the way that the Obama administration put the law enforcement and intelligence arms of the administration in the service of the Clinton campaign.”

Them’s fighting words.  Given both sides are evenly matched the fight will go on for a long time in a battle of inches.

The saddest saying in the cupboard of historical metaphors is that every real war traps combatants in conflict.   To paraphrase one former Facebook executive, we have become a society with ‘no civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth’ where both sides have been hurt so badly that no one can get out.  The investment costs can go so high eventually the only acceptable exit strategy for either side is victory, even if no one remembers how the argument started in the first place, even when everyone wants to go home.

That seems the only incontrovertible lesson of the 2016 Alabama election. No matter how tired you are, it goes on.

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Books:

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945, by James D. Hornfischer. From the historian who has been acclaimed as “doing for the Navy what popular historian Stephen Ambrose did for the Army,” here is an unprecedented account of the extraordinary World War II air, land, and sea campaign that brought the U.S. Navy to the apex of its strength and marked the rise of the United States as a global superpower.

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, Author Mike Duncan brings to life the bloody battles, political machinations, and human drama that set the stage for the fall of the Roman Republic. Chronicling the years 146-78 BC, he showed how, abandoning the ancient principles of their forbears, men like Marius, Sulla, and the Gracchi brothers set dangerous new precedents that would start the Republic on the road to destruction and provide a stark warning about what can happen to a civilization that has lost its way.

Grant, by Ron Chernow. This book is a grand synthesis of painstaking research and literary brilliance that makes sense of all sides of Grant’s life, explaining how this simple Midwesterner could at once be so ordinary and so extraordinary. Named one of the best books of the year.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This biograpy of history’s most creative genius is based on thousands of pages from Leonardo’s astonishing notebooks and new discoveries about his life and work. Isaacson weaves a narrative that connects his art to his science and shows how Leonardo’s genius was based on skills we can improve in ourselves, such as passionate curiosity, careful observation, and an imagination so playful that it flirted with fantasy.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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